Month: November 2022
Rail issues, new research, DMO review announcements and asylum pressures.
1. News of 4 new rail strike dates 13-14, 16-17 December and 2-3, 6-7 January (essential two one week periods of disruption13 -18 Dec and 2 -8 Jan) and an overtime ban between 18 December and 2 January involving 40k RMT members and impacting directly on 14 train operating companies, serves to heap further pressure on already pressed retail, hospitality, leisure and tourism industries, over the critical pre-Christmas and New Year retail shopping period, and both the domestic festive hospitality and domestic tourism Christmas and New Year holidays. There will also be unwelcome visitor economy related impacts arising from a loss of still shaky commuter driven business and many travel related, staffing issues within the visitor economy itself. Rail is not of course ubiquitous but in those many places it does touch, in particular but not exclusively towns and Cities, it is a major driver of footfall, visitor numbers and, therefore, all manner of face-to-face economic activity. Recent pandemic inspired attitudinal changes now means that the cancellation of travel arrangement, for example, working from home, rather than battling through by other means, is now a far more accepted and logical response to any abnormal barrier to routine or indeed leisure travel.
While negations are ongoing and a suspension of the strikes are always a possibility, the likelihood of an early resolution of the underlying issues seem somewhat remote. The dispute is not simply about the headline wage claim but among other things: guarantees around retention of certain roles, manning levels, terms and conditions, pensions, job numbers and the avoidance of compulsory redundancies. We know from the content of the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail (2021), the creation Great British Railway as the new state owned company to oversee all rail transport in GB and their transitional team’s recent Whole Industry 30-year Strategy consultation, that the complex subsidised train operating franchise system, the separate rail infrastructure management arrangements and the not insubstantial pre-pandemic subsidy levels are all being reformed. This is a direct result of pandemic triggered and now still ongoing changes to previously well-establish and, until 2020, growing rail usage and improving revenue patterns.
Either, major adjustments are going to have to be made to reduce costs and/or raise revenues, or Government are going to have to accept the need to continue to subsides the existing complex mixed semi-privatised, semi-public sector owned, operated and controlled GB rail network, and all at a significantly higher cost to the public purse than it was pre the advent of covid-19. Whichever side of the argument between the workforce, train operators and Government your sympathies fall, it is now indisputable that at some point, something or someone is going to have to give ground.
The immediate and future fortunes our railways are a critical short, medium and long-term concern for tourism. Businesses can’t afford the fragile post-covid-19 recovery, already seriously threatened by a new and as if not more serious cost of living crisis, to take a potentially avoidable further knock over the key 2022/23 festive season. Nor can we afford to see this dispute rumble on, as it could, well into and beyond the main 2023 season; a domestic season that will almost certainly be one of the most difficult in living memory, due to a combination of: its proximity to the previous major crisis, spiralling business input costs, staff shortages, reduced discretionary disposable income, suppressed consumer demand and, let’s be frank, the continued, unexpectedly strong return of competition for the domestic tourism pound from domestic outbound market. The latter should now be viewed as a genuinely worrying import/export issue for HMG, particularly in a post BREXIT environment.
Beyond 2023, in an industry that is utterly reliant on the desire, the will and ability of the consumer to travel to the product to consume it and, faced with a perceived, urgent need to move away from fossil fuels and towards greater use of electric vehicles and in particular public transport, of which rail is by far the largest single domestic mass mover, we have an obvious vested interest. A vested interest in ensuring that rail in Great Britain retains the capacity, frequency, reliability, quality and the affordability necessary to sustain domestic tourism, retail, hospitality leisure and all those businesses that make up the ubiquitous, visitor economy in communities across the UK. Uncertainties around when and, in some circles even if, Great British Railways will take over, over-all management and control of almost all rail transport in GB is problematic, especially in current circumstances. The announcement by the then Secretary of State on 19 October, a week before the current Secretary of State for Transport was appointed, that the planned 2024 date for GBR to take control, would not now be met, due to a lack of Parliamentary time, is not really helping build the necessary confidence that there is a robust, properly resourced plan in place.
2. The Caravan and Camping Club have released a new report on the lifestyle and wellbeing benefits arising from camping. Produced by John Moores and Sheffield Hallam University its a fairly weighty piece of research that demonstrates that the benefits of camping go well beyond the traditional view that it is more affordable form of holiday making. For initial purpose it may suffice simply to read the summary at paragraph 1.4 at page 6. The report may be useful when assessing proposals to develop or support camping-based proposals. The full report and an abridged web version has been added to the BritishDestinations.net research library: https://britishdestinations.net/research-and-statistics/
3. Hot off the press Ministers have, as expected, announced that the “North East England will pilot a new £2.25 million scheme to restructure tourism boards” NewcastleGateshead Initiative will lead a partnership with Visit County Durham and Visit Northumberland in a 2/3 multi year agreement totalling £2.25m. Major boost for North East tourism as region is chosen for initiative to increase visitor numbers – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) . It is worth reading the short announcement to remind ourselves what it is that Government are now aiming to achieve in England, rather than what we might have thought we gleaned from the original review’s recommendations, the Governments belated response to it, VE’s emerging implementation plans and/or the various views and interpretations that may have developed in the intervening period. It easy to lose sight of what is or isn’t planned, what it hopes to achieve and the implications, if any, for those that inevitably fall outside perimeters of the model being proposed and developed.
4. I have become aware that a number of additional hotels have been taken over in recent days and weeks to house asylum seekers, particularly, I believe in South, South East of England. This appears to have been a potential knee jerk reaction to the well-publicised problems of overcrowding at Manston and the spotlight this had cast on current numbers of asylum seekers arriving, inadequate accommodation arrangements, slow application assessment processes, backlog of decisions and problem with removal of those whose applications fail. The problem which is being reported to me is that it is being alleged that whole, or potentially more problematically part hotels, have been taken over at no notice and without any consultation with local authorities, NHS or other key services providers. This means that no provision has not been made for those services and no arrangements have been put in place to manage often locally contentious issues arising. Blindsiding key local agencies by national agencies apparently set only in resolving their immediate problems (embarrassment?) is at best unacceptable at worst it will leave local agencies unable to provide the appropriate care and potentially serve to ferment otherwise avoidable local tensions, among local residents and/or visitors.
In the medium-term (I.E. before the start of the 2023 season) the Home Office and its contractors have to be persuaded to recognise the unpalatable but unescapable truth that housing asylum seekers in hotels within recognised tourism destinations (often in the core tourism areas) has a significant detrimental impact on the wider visitor economy, which will ultimately cost HMG dearly. Asylum seekers are unable to work, they are unable spend and contribute to the local economy at a similar level as the visitors they will be displacing from hotels during the holiday season. Most controversially of all, however sympathetic to their plight the majority of holiday makers might be they do not in general expect to share their accommodation or its surrounding attractions with noticeable numbers of non-holiday makers. Housing asylum seekers in tourism destination with limited local services and inflated visitor demands doesn’t help asylum seekers and it doesn’t help the locals, visitors or critically the local visitor economy. While individual hotel owner might see this as money for old rope in difficult times, the wellbeing of the wider visitor economy and the destination’s survival during what is already likely to be a difficult year or more to come must be considered. There are categories of hotel and, in particular, typical hotel location where the visitors have only limited impact, positive or negative on the immediate local visitor economy and it is to these that the Home Office should now be looking.
It gives me no pleasure to raise these difficult and potentially contentious issue on behalf of some members but someone unfortunately must and I realise that at the local level that doing so is even more difficult that it is for me. If any other members have valid concerns that they wish to share with me, in confidence if necessary and that you would wish to see raised at a higher level, then please let me know ASAP.
Conference presentations, Autumn Statement and more
1. The joint Tourism Alliance, Tourism Society and British Destinations’ annual conference on 15 November appears to have been very well received. The slide deck for the presentations is now available on the dropdown menu from the main Annual Conference tab of Britishdestinations.net: https://britishdestinations.net/annual-conference-19-march-2018/annual-conference-2022-report/ . I would thoroughly recommend that colleagues wishing to evaluate mainly domestic performance in 2022 as compared with 2021 take a look at Jon Young of BVA BRDCs excellent presentation. I would also recommend that any English destination management or marketing organisations that either have yet to engage in the discussions or, who have done so but are still unclear on the direction of travel and its implications for them should read Andrew Stokes VE’s England Director’s presentation on the implementation of the DMO review.
2. Like most of you I have wasted quite a lot of energy and time trying to understand the detailed implications of the Autumn Statement, the full detail of which in many cases have yet to be announced or are subject to the vagaries of their application sometime down the line. For now at least at the national and destination level all we really need to know is how deep and how long? While there is much that appears to take some of the sting out of the immediate pain for business, that pain remains significant. Moreover, on the demand side of the business equation the OBR are forecasting that average house hold incomes are set to fall by 7% in this year and again in next (financial) year, the largest fall since this measure was recorded. That will have major implications for disposable income and all those primarily reliant on discretionary spending, including leisure hospitality and tourism and much else besides that are involved in the visitor economy.
We are told that while public spending will be protected for the next two years, essentially preserving the budgets and projects already agreed in the current CSR round (but not protecting them from now higher inflationary pressures) we can expect cuts in the each of the following three years. By delaying public expenditure cuts, it may be hoped that less severe cut may be needed if in particular, external negative influences improve. It also puts off deeply unpopular cut in and reductions to public service at a time of increasing taxation for many, until after the next general election which falls due in two year’s time. The broad answer to the how deep how long question, is very and at least 2 to possibly 5 years or more. The detail can wait, in the meantime the good news is that the money market have not reacted too bad to the Autumn statement and certainly far better than they did to the disastrous mini budget that contributed significantly to our current fiscal difficulties. Things can only get better, albeit it that they are now firmly set to get worse at first and then slowly recover thereafter.
3. A couple of issue to watch. In among new policies promises proclamations and sudden U Turns of recent months it did at one point look like the future of Great British Railways was in serious doubt. The latest official announcement extracted by the Parliamentary Transport Committee (19 October?) was that Great British Railways would now not take over Network Rail and franchising responsibilities in 2024 as originally planned, suggesting that they still will but just not yet. Views are split as to whether the current PM and Cabinet are likely to support a more or less hands-on approach and what degree of damage might be done to the management of the UK’s railways by delaying or indeed possibly scrapping plans developed over several years for Great British Railways. Meanwhile the additional cost of running the railways has not been addressed nor the problems of a generally declining service, neither of which helps tourism and the visitor economy, hence me putting it on the one to watch list.
North Yorkshire County Council have taken the unusual step of voting to double Council Tax on holiday homes ahead of the bill that will enable them to implement the decision. Whether this is to signal their approval for the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill that is currently passing through Parliament, a glitch or a sensible means of ensuring that they can charge from the earliest conceivable date of April 2024, subject to the bill’s approval by April 2023 currently escapes me. The effectiveness of the measure will in large part depend on whether rules on short term holiday lets are also effectively tightened up to ensure that only genuine businesses operate under the business rate regime. Other Councils in England, particularly in rural are likely to follow North Yorkshires early lead. Wales is in the process of introducing a similar higher Council Tax rates for holiday home and a far more stringent set of test criteria for short-term lets and business rate status than that proposed in England.
Update: English Language Training, Which? Annual Hotel’s Report and our joint annual conference 15 Nov 22.
1. Yesterday (10 November) the Tourism Alliance working with colleagues in BETA, English UK, and UKInbound launched a short report looking at the post Brexit impacts on inbound school visits to the UK. In essence, the report says that the removal of the “list of travellers” scheme which previously allowed EU students to travel to the UK on a recognised school trip, accompanied by a teacher using the student’s EU identity cards, rather than individual passports for all, has effectively decimated, this seemingly niche but actually significant and very important market for a large number of established destinations, especially but not exclusively on the South Coast, South East and Southern England. The report highlights the finding of an ongoing survey of 82 specialist tour operators which shows that the number of students brought to the UK between them in 2022 was 83% down on the equivalent numbers for 2019. This mirrors and confirms other statistics which show that the lucrative market has already been seriously damaged and will not recover without urgent corrective action.
This seems like a simple policy matter that could, with good will and a little common sense, be easily resolved. Whilst recognising the current perceived, practical and political need to be seen to be “secure the UK’s post Brexit borders” it is still difficult to see how a genuine school party, particularly using a reputable specialist tour operator, represents a significant risk to UK border security. Any school party returning home without one or more of its student would have rather more to worry about than just the Home Office and UK Border Force! A return to the list of travellers scheme, literally an official form, completed by a bona fide teacher in charge of the party from a bona fide school, listing the group and their identity documentation that is then presented and checked against the group in and outbound at the border, seems like a bit of a no brainer. I suspect that the issue, if there is one, is how making sensible adjustments for one specific group of visitors would play out and be perceived both practically and politically, alongside and in competition with a whole raft of other more complex UK border related issues and demands.
The report’s findings evidences the serious scale of the issues faced and give further impetuous for the ongoing lobbying efforts to gain an early policy change. It would be helpful if those destinations, not significantly impacted and therefore concerned by these issues, were also to take note of the problems being faced and gave their support to the campaign, whenever the opportunity arises. The report can be accessed at: https://www.tourismalliance.com/downloads/TA_429_462.pdf and the launch Webinar which neatly summaries the concerns can be viewed at: recording of the launch webinar
2. Which? have awarded Britannia Hotels the dubious accolade of being the UK’s worst hotel group for the 10th year in succession. Their annual survey of just under 4.5k consumers rated the group as:
Britannia – 56%
As of this year, Britannia has been bottom of our survey for an entire decade. We can’t even say it’s cheap. with plenty of better-rated brands beating it on price.
Britannia’s downfall is particularly sad when you consider its illustrious past. The Adelphi in Liverpool was once the departure point for wealthy passengers before they boarded luxury liners, including the Titanic.
The beautiful historic buildings in prime locations remain, but the interiors are showing serious signs of neglect. The brand received just two out of five stars in every category, including cleanliness, with one guest describing their stay as ‘absolutely dire, drab and smelly’.
Which? verdict: Run-down, dirty and once again the worst hotel chain in the UK. Avoid at all costs.
The full report can be accessed at: https://www.which.co.uk/reviews/uk-hotel-chains/article/best-and-worst-uk-hotel-chains-aaVVF4u1jZpe
If it were not for the fact that Britannia own and run 61, mainly large hotels spread across many major UK destinations, key airport locations and some rural areas, their record would almost laughable. Their defence, although they are notorious for seldom offering any defence for any failing, or allegedly for even responding to consumer complaints, has previously been that they offer “good value for money”; the unsustainable, “you pays your money you takes your chances defence. The Which? reports combined serve refute even this weak, value for money, or in reality a deplorable “what do you expect for the price” claim.
The fact that the known problems with Britannia have been going on now for well over a decade, and now independently evidenced by Which? in each of the last ten year’s annual hotel group reports, to my mind, demonstrates that the popular assumption that user reviews, alone, can now maintain, if not drive forward national industry standards, is profoundly flawed. The parallel view that nationally agreed quality standards and independent quality inspection schemes are now somehow, at best, old hat or at worst, increasingly redundant, is equally flawed. Quality and service standards backed by independent advice, inspection and verification still have a very, if not increasingly, important role to play.
My understanding of the prevailing situation is that Local Government authority’s existing powers are insufficient to adequately addresses the major quality and service issues that Britannia and some others seemingly present. It is perhaps time that Central Government stepped back up to the mark and started to look to address, reputationally damaging, poor quality standards among a minority of operators may be causing, within both the domestic and international markets. They don’t have to set or maintain the standards themselves, just ensure there are standards and that they are set, universally met and then maintained by someone. The ongoing DCMS deliberations about the potential introduction of a statutory registration in England might be the perfect opportunity to grasp this particular nettle? Registration could conceivably be used not only to ensure that the relevant authorities are aware of who is offering accommodation where and when but also that whatever is being offered, meets the essential level of quality and services it proports to be offering.
In truth I don’t hold out too much hope that the current administration, in current circumstances, will go for anything more than the most basic form of self-registration, if anything at all. Perhaps the alternative might be to suggest that if Britannia “win” the award for a say a twelfth consecutive year they should get to keep the accolade in perpetuity and be forced to display the honour prominently in the entry to each of their hotels? Last year the idea of discussing shared concern among those member destinations who hosted one or more Britannia Hotel was aired but for various reasons didn’t progress beyond the “good idea” stage. News from Which? that things have not improved from a consumer prospective prompts me to suggest we revisit the idea of calling an initial, informal investigatory meeting. If anyone is interested in joining in with that, then please let me know.
3. I am looking forward to seeing a number of members at next week’s joint British Destinations, Tourism Alliance and Tourism Society’s annual national tourism conference on the 15 November. If you are attending and have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact me. Alternatively a reminder of timings, location etc. can be found at: https://britishdestinations.net/annual-conference-19-march-2018/
Autumn Statement, DCMS Ministers and our Annual Conference deadline.
(Para two corrected on 5 Nov)
1. The unprecedented events of recent months and weeks have left many of us in a state of disbelief and bewilderment as we struggle to keep track of changing direction and to predict the likely consequences for: tourism, leisure hospitality and the wider visitor economy. Not until the new, new PM’s and his relatively new Chancellor reveal their new economic vision and means of achieving it, via the Autumn Statement, now pushed back to the 17 November, will we begin to get a true handle on where it all leaves us, as we accelerate toward the critical retail, leisure and hospitality festive season, pass through it into the typically lacklustre first quarter of the calendar year and start then heading in to and through a brand new 2023/24 tourism season, before starting that rolling cycle all over again. I make no apology for, yet again, saying that the only thing that is really now still in doubt is how deep and for how long the financial crisis will impact on the disposable income and discretionary spending of domestic residents. Spending that underpins pretty much everything that happens within “tourism” and fuels much of the UK’s destination-based tourism, leisure, hospitality and visitor economy in general. You probably don’t need or, in some cases, want me to say this but the prospects are bleak by any measure, historic or otherwise. The only bit of optimism I can offer at this point, is to say that with luck and a good wind, it may not be as truly bleak as it might have been had there not been a number of significant fiscal and policy U-turns performed in very short order. If yesterday’s Bank of England’s rate rise and their accompanying forecast for the economy are anything to go by, even that little bit of optimism can’t be guaranteed; at least not until the politicians have pronounced and critically the markets have considered and reacted to the Autumn Statement.
There has ever been a better or more opportune time for the Westminster Government to review and revise the Treasury mantra that domestic tourism support is essentially a wasteful economic displacement activity (any and all economic activity not simply displacing tourism) and therefore not really worthy of public support and investment. If domestic tourism is not adequately encouraged, properly supported and, where appropriate, promoted at the higher national generic (holiday in England as the other home nations consistently do) and larger destination level (visit Cornwall, Cumbria, Liverpool, Blackpool, Scarborough, Windsor, Bradford etc.) the resulting loss of tourism product and tourism infrastructure in the coming 12 months or more will not only damage the c80% by value and volume of domestic day and staying activity but seriously damage the short, medium and long-term prospects for the recovery of the c20% staying international tourism, so beloved of HMG as export/import earner. If the current administration don’t feel able to embrace an different mindset around the role of domestic tourism then perhaps it is a good time to start exploring the concept of a step change in approach with others major political parties?
The alternative of celebrating the possibility that international tourism might just improve from some markets to some places off the back of an economic downturn feels too much like asking Turkey’s to join us in celebrating Christmas. It’s an argument born of desperation. Not least because, despite best efforts, international tourism touches relatively few destinations at anything like a comparable level to that of the bread-and-butter, domestic market. The two coexist everywhere and, more often than not, live off the same infrastructure, product and promises. We lose sight of the fact that the domestic market came and general still comes first, sustains more, endures longer, is less fickle and is far more easily reached and is potentially far more malleable, at our peril. Lose international tourism and you still have the domestic market (as witnessed post Covid-19). Lose the domestic market and in a relatively short timescale most destinations will have little or nothing or at least little or nothing worth coming for, wherever you are coming from (witness the post 1970 demise and fortunately subsequent renaissance of the British seaside resort towns and Cities).
2. You will be aware that Michelle Donelan appointed as Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport on 6 September has retained that appointment in the latest Cabinet, which is good news from the prospect of regaining much needed stability and continuity within DCMS. Lord Syed Kamall, appointed Minister for Civil Society, Heritage, Tourism and Growth on 20 September alongside Stuart Andrew MP as Minister for Sports, Arts and Ceremonials stands down with effect 27 /28th October and hands the Civic Society, Heritage and Tourism portfolio to Stewart Andrew, making Mr Andrew the eight Tourism Minister now in the last 7 years. Interestingly Stewart Andrew was also been given the dual appointment of Minister for Equalities in the Department of International Trade on the same day. I am still puzzling why that might be, or what it means in practice. Lord Kemall has been replaced as a DCMS Minister of State in the House of Lords by Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, previously the DCMS Minister for Arts until the recent 20 September reshuffle. Paul Scully MP, already Minister for London also joins the team as a Parliamentary under secretary at DCMS. Hopefully you forgive me if I momentarily lose sight of who’s is looking after what part or parts of the DCMS portfolio, some or all of which to differing degrees are either part of, or important to “tourism”.
3. We are now well over the 100-delegate mark for the joint Tourism Alliance Tourism Society and British Destinations’ national tourism conference on 15th November in London. The absolute last chance for any stragglers to book for this very timely event, is a week today, Friday 11 November. However, if you do intend to attend and have yet to have get round to booking, please try and do so before that final, final deadline, to avoid overburdening the administration. I would also like to remind you that not only are the speakers and subject matter of excellent quality the conference also represents a first opportunity to meet Richard Toomer the recently appointed new Director at the Tourism Alliance and, at the same time, to say a personal farewell to Kurt Janson who is organising the joint event. Booking details can be accessed at: https://britishdestinations.net/annual-conference-19-march-2018/